As evolutionary theory expands beyond the biological sciences to include all aspects of humanity, it must inevitably encounter the humanities, which are variously defined as “studies about human culture” (Wikipedia) or “the study of how people process and document the human experience” (Stanford Humanities).

The partitioning of academic knowledge is worth reflecting upon, before we focus on the encounter between evolution and the humanities. This table shows how my university (Binghamton) cuts the cake on its website, which is typical of most institutions of higher education worldwide.

binghampton divisions

Right away, we can see that this partitioning makes sense only as an accretion of academic cultural history. Even the Interdisciplinary and Cross-Disciplinary programs are higgledy-piggledy, with no conceptual rhyme or reason.

Properly understood, what makes the expansion of evolutionary theory so radical is that it’s not just another cross-disciplinary program. Instead, it uniquely provides a common language for all of the divisions, departments, and programs listed in the table, with the exception of the purely physical sciences; i.e., the study of non-living processes. This idea was foreign and sometimes even anathema to all of the human-related disciplines during most of the 20th century. Now, as we near the 1/5th mark of the 21st century, it is becoming embraced within psychology and the social sciences but not nearly as much in the humanities. In this sense, the humanities can be called the last frontier of evolutionary science.

One reason for this time lag concerns science in general rather than evolutionary science in particular. In fact, the three basic divisions can be regarded as a gradient from “hard” science (Division of Science and Mathematics) to no science (Division of Fine Arts and the Humanities) with a collection of “soft” sciences (Division of Social Sciences) in between. The reason that a human-oriented subject such as Psychology is listed in the Division of the Science and Mathematics is because it is regarded as somehow “harder”, scientifically, than the other human-oriented subjects.  This entire conceptualization is also an accretion of academic cultural history that makes little sense against the background of modern human-oriented science. The study of human culture can be just as scientific as the study of other living processes. In addition, if by “soft” or “no” science we mean “thick descriptions” (to use a term employed within the humanities) of the human experience, then these are essential and should not be regarded as inferior or replaceable by something that is regarded as somehow “more” scientific. The entire sexualized distinction between “hard” and “soft” is cringeworthy against the background of modern sensibilities. In any case, one reason that people in fields associated with the humanities remain uncomfortable about evolution in particular is because they remain uncomfortable about science as a whole—with some justification.

9780190231217-1Joseph Carroll has been pioneering the study of the humanities from an evolutionary perspective for many years. He is a literary scholar by training and author/editor of Evolution and Literary Theory (1994),  Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature (2004), Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader (with Brian Boyd and Jonathan Gottschall, 2010);   Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice (2011), and Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning (with Jonathan Gottschall, John A. Johnson, and Daniel J. Kruger; 2012). He has also published a contextualized edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Oxford University Press has just published Carroll’s most recent book, Darwin’s Bridge: Uniting the Humanities and the Sciences, which is co-edited with Dan P. McAdams and Edward O. Wilson. It is based on a conference that was held at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, where Carroll is Curator’s Professor of English, which I was fortunate to attend. The publication of Darwin’s Bridge affords an opportunity to discuss the past, present, and future of evolution theory’s encounter with the humanities.

DSW: Welcome, Joe, to TVOL. We go back a long way together.

JC: Yes, you go back further than I do in evolutionary studies, but when we first met some twenty years ago, at a conference of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, evolutionary studies in the social sciences still had something of a raw frontier quality to them. That exploratory and buccaneering spirit of early research has been succeeded by the tamer, more regularized phase of an established research program. And yet, so much that is really basic to an evolutionary understanding of human nature remains unsettled. The nature of human sociality is finally being deciphered, but an evolutionary understanding of institutions and the organization of specific historical cultures remains fairly rudimentary. The chief subject matter of the humanities—products of the human imagination—remains at an even more rudimentary stage of understanding. Most humanists do not acknowledge the relevance of evolutionary social science to research in the humanities, and many evolutionists in the social sciences do not recognize that imaginative culture is a crucial part of human nature.

DSW: I agree that there is often incomprehension on both sides and also mutual benefits to be gained, which I’m sure we will elaborate upon in this interview. Let’s begin at the beginning. Tell us the story of how you became one of the first Literary Darwinists.

JC: The eighteenth-century British philosopher David Hume spoke about how reading Kant had awakened him from his dogmatic slumber. I was not slumbering when I first read Darwin, back in the early nineties. I was instead eagerly and restlessly seeking to formulate basic principles of literary theory. The kinds of theory that were available in the humanities at that time—mostly deconstructive epistemology, Freudian psychology, Marxist social theory, and feminist gender theory—were for various reasons deeply unsatisfactory. When I first read Darwin, I had an epiphany. He gave me a distinct impression of deep time, and I was instantly convinced that all things human had to be understood in light of the evolved and adapted character of the human organism. I started reading voraciously in evolutionary epistemology and the evolutionary social sciences, trying to abstract core principles that could be used to understand literature.

In any professional discipline, if one’s own thinking does not harmonize with established ideas, one cannot simply ignore the established ideas and go one’s own way. One has to confront the established ideas, examine them critically, weigh them against one’s own ideas, and give good reasons for preferring one’s own ideas. Darwin did that in The Origin of Species when he took “special creation” as his foil for the idea of “descent with modification by means of natural selection.” In my first evolutionary book, Evolution and Literary Theory, I took the established forms of literary theory as my foil. From that point on, I had a mission and a program: to develop evolutionary literary theory and to devise ways of using it for practical literary criticism. Along the way, recognizing that the evolutionary human sciences were themselves still in the process of forming a paradigm, with basic problems unsolved and basic issues still suspended in controversy, that original mission required also engaging critically with evolutionary research. While speaking to literary scholars and other humanists, seeking to persuade them that all human activity, including literary activity, must be situated within an evolutionary conceptual framework, I have also been speaking to evolutionary social scientists, seeking to persuade them that imaginative culture is a core feature of human nature.

DSW: I feel that I have been engaged in the same dialectic. Perhaps this is a good moment to describe to our readers how I entered the field of Darwinian Literary Theory. As you know, I direct EvoS, which teaches evolution across the curriculum at Binghamton University. A graduate student in our English Department named Jonathan Gottschall wanted to write his thesis on Homer from an evolutionary perspective and was getting little support from his thesis committee. Actually, that is an understatement. He was being actively discouraged and eventually his entire committee consisted of members that were outside his department. I became Jon’s mentor and joined him in an edited book project that resulted in The Literary Animal, published in 2005. I had a special reason for joining Jon on this project. I felt that the nascent field of Darwinian Literary Theory was unduly influenced by Evolutionary Psychology (EP), which at that time had set itself apart from the so called Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), including the social constructivist tradition so common in the humanities, as represented for example by Clifford Geertz (go here for TVOL’s Special Edition titled “What’s Wrong (and Right) with Evolutionary Psychology). My own view of evolutionary psychology was much less polarized and I wanted our edited volume to acknowledge the open-ended nature of human behavioral and cultural change. The title of my chapter was “Evolutionary Social Constructivism” and its main message was that if you’re a social constructivist, you’re not wrong, but you can get even more mileage by adopting an evolutionary perspective. Thus, like you, I have tried to recognize the value of both sides—but do you agree with me that Evolutionary Literary Theory was perhaps a bit too wedded to narrow-school evolutionary psychology at its inception?

JC: Evolutionary literary study and evolutionary aesthetics got going at just about the time that the Santa Barbara school was rising fast to a dominating position in the evolutionary human sciences—the early 1990s. However, most of the early contributors to the evolutionary humanities did not adhere specifically to narrow-school evolutionary psychology. The most active influences included sociobiology, human ethology, and evolutionary epistemology. For me, too, behavioral genetics and personality psychology were important.

But your larger point, perhaps, is that early evolutionary literary theory joined a general evolutionary reaction against the Standard Social Science Model, and that as a result early literary Darwinists tended to emphasize innate and universal features of human nature, thus deprecating or minimizing the significance of variations in cultural norms and individual behavior. I suppose some emphasis on human nature was inevitable in the intellectual climate of the humanities in the early 1990s. In that climate, the idea that biology had any influence on human behavior was startling, shocking, exhilarating, delightful, and of course, it was also true. An idea with that piquant a set of characteristics would naturally tend to get favored and foregrounded. Still, in my own first evolutionary book, Evolution and Literary Theory, I worked out a model of biocultural interpretation that required analyzing the interactions among three main levels of organization: a universal and elemental human nature, specific cultural contexts, and individual human identities. Most evolutionary literary scholars early on adopted the rubric “biocultural analysis,” and most have tried to make it effective in their interpretive essays and books.

I recall the HBES conference at Santa Barbara in 1995. Tooby and Cosmides had just founded their institute there, and they distributed a flyer which propounded their conception of the modular mind as a kind of dogma that would guide the work of the institute. I objected to that then, and I was delighted with a plenary lecture given by Steven Mithen, who presented the ideas that would be foregrounded in his 1996 book The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science. Mithen had spent a year working at Santa Barbara and was criticizing the idea of massive modularity advocated by the Santa Barbara school. For a while, massive modularity was all the rage, but the evolutionary human sciences are fed by many separate springs, and premature reductions like massive modularity have little opportunity to stagnate in still waters.  The kind of dogma encoded in that 1995 manifesto have long been superseded by research on general intelligence, human life history theory, behavioral ecology, behavioral genetics, personality psychology, and (most of all) gene-culture coevolution.

In preparing to write a chapter for a handbook of literary theory, I recently went back through most of the work done in evolutionary literary study. My impression is that the single strongest influence on early evolutionary thinking in the humanities was the work of Edward O. Wilson, first through the final chapter of Sociobiology and the 1978 book On Human Nature, and then through his 1998 book Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge. Wilson was an originator of the general idea of gene-culture coevolution.  Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process was published in 1981, and Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind (both with Charles Lumsden) in 1983. The conception of gene-culture coevolution promulgated by Lumsden and Wilson languished for a couple of decades, but clearly now this line of thinking is a central current in evolutionary research.

Lumsden and Wilson are barely referenced in Joseph Henrich’s 2015 The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Henrich identifies Pete Richerson (Not by Genes Alone, with Robert Boyd) as his main inspiration, and he switches the reciprocating terms around so that it is culture gene coevolution, rather than gene-culture coevolution. Whatever the source and the precedence of terms, the core ideas are those of a spiraling causal process in which genes produce cultural changes and culture produces genetic changes, which lead to more cultural changes, which lead to more genetic changes, and so on. Research across many disciplines are converging on that one central idea. It is clearly a true idea, and a foundational idea. One consequence of that idea is that we can now relegate to the archives of intellectual history the most distinctive tenets of the Santa Barbara school: massive modularity and the Pleistocene Mind, with their corollary of a “mismatch” between human nature and all post-agricultural society, with their weird and anti-evolutionary denial that there are significant adaptive differences among individuals and groups, and also with their implication that most human imaginative and artistic activity are non-functional byproducts of a mind that evolved solely to solve practical problems in a hunter-gatherer ecology.

DSW: Thanks for this detailed overview—very helpful. I might quibble with you on some details, but primarily we’re on the same page.  Let’s fast-forward to the present with the publication of Darwin’s Bridge.  Tell us about the conference upon which it is based and how the book represents the current frontier of evolution in relation to the humanities.

JC: The Dean of Arts and Sciences at my university knew I was interested in integrating biology and the humanities. He proposed and offered funding for a conference. In company with a couple of colleagues, one from biology and one from economics, I proposed a conference based on Edward O. Wilson’s idea of consilience—the idea that nature forms a unified whole and that human knowledge, also, should be a seamless web of causal hypotheses. Wilson’s conception includes physics and chemistry, but for purely practical reasons we limited this conference to the cluster of sciences stretching from evolutionary biology through the evolutionary human sciences to the evolutionary humanities. We arranged for six speakers from each of these three fields, asked Edward O. Wilson to give a keynote, and sent out a call for posters in interdisciplinary work in that whole range. The invitation for posters was designed to bring in graduate students. All the invited speakers gave hour-long plenary presentations. We had a big auditorium, which was packed for the keynote, and respectably populated for the rest of the conference.  It seemed a high-energy conference, with a fair number of people declaring it the most interesting and satisfying conference they had ever attended.

DSW: I was there and it was indeed a high-end experience. I even taped some of the interviews for TVOL, which are available here.

JC: Frankly, at the outset, I did not have much hope that the book would ever be published. When I was working on a collaborative empirical book project in literary study—collaborating with Jon Gottschall and two psychologists, John Johnson and Dan Kruger—an editor at Harvard UP told me that interdisciplinary work tended not to have an audience. If audiences were stools, interdisciplinary studies would fall between them. But I felt an obligation to the people who had attended the conference, and we got a break. Barb Oakley and Dan McAdams had both published successful books with a psychology editor at Oxford UP. They wrote letters recommending the volume. Even so, Oxford was evidently nervous about the project. We went through round after round of external reviews. After getting one set of positive reviews, and responding to all the suggestions for revision, I’d think we were home free, and sit waiting for copyedited proofs. Then, a few months later, we’d get another round of evaluations. But finally we got through the process. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that a book in possession of a good subject must be in want of editorial interventions.

I wish I could say that the book satisfied my own ambitions for consilient research in the human sciences more fully than it does. There are many good things in the book, clever and earnest people doing serious research at the forefront of their own fields. What ideally I could envision would have been all the chapters striving more intentionally for connections with the others. At one point, I envisioned the possibility of round-table commentaries on each chapter, with various contributors weighing in and the authors responding—the kind of format that appears in journal like Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Instead, to draw out the implicit connections among the chapters, we made use of meta-commentary by four writers: Alice Dreger in a foreword, you and Jon Gottschall in afterwords, and me in the introduction. Edward O. Wilson’s short first chapter is also something like a foreword, a synoptic overview of human evolutionary and cultural history, sweeping across the disciplines.

Two main themes emerged from the various chapters: human nature is ultra-social, and it is imaginative. All the chapters engaged with one or both of those themes. We had sections on the evolution of human sociality, ancient rock markings, interdisciplinary psychology, and evolutionary studies in literature and pop culture. (Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher and geneticist, had a section to himself in which he expressed skepticism about the whole project of consilience as it was represented in E. O. Wilson’s book of that title, and implicitly, in the volume to which he was contributing.)

There are real linkages throughout the chapters. The literary and pop culture chapters fed off the kind of work being done by the theorists of human sociality.  Chris Boehm’s work on egalitarianism and dominance in hunter-gatherer societies has watershed significance for evolved sociality. Dan McAdams work on narrative psychology uses the same sources in personality and social psychology as much evolutionary literary theory does. My co-authored chapter on dominance and egalitarianism in Victorian novels converged in clear and distinct ways with work done by Boehm and McAdams. (I have you to thank, by the way, for pointing me toward Boehm’s seminal work. Your Evolution for Everyone gave me many valuable prompts for reading, and Boehm most importantly of all.) Henry Harpending has done major research in gene-culture coevolution, and gene-culture coevolution is a main theme in Herb Gintis’s chapter on game theory and human moral norms.

If the book as a whole is not as much of a whole as I would like, the very existence of the book is a provocation and should work as a stimulus. Pigliucci’s chapter, which explicitly champions a traditional division of the disciplines, suggests the kind of provocation offered by the book. A good many readers might well be stimulated by the tantalizing juxtaposition of chapters in which the implications join in a space above the local disciplinary idioms with which the chapters are occupied. The introduction makes strong claims for consilience, and the spaces between chapters lay out vast areas of research in which consilience can be realized.

DSW: The book deserves to be widely read, even if it doesn’t make as much progress toward consilience as you might like. What do you see for the future?

JC: For the evolutionary human sciences, I envision different kinds of progress in different subfields. In fields in which we already have a firm general understanding—for instance, mating and parenting behavior—I anticipate ever finer resolution of detail, more nuanced understanding of variations dependent on variables in personal character and contingent circumstance. Other subfields are as yet imperfectly integrated into basic evolutionary concepts. Personality psychology and social psychology began outside of evolutionary thinking and typically use classificatory schemes that were produced empirically and descriptively, in an ad hoc way—I’m thinking of Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations and Dan McAdams’s uses of personality and social psychology. I think cognitive and affective neuroscience will help dissolve those imperfect classificatory schemas, reshaping them and absorbing them within a more coherent and fully rationalized set of evolutionary concepts. Something like that needs to happen also with the classificatory system in the manual of psychiatric disorders, the DSM-5.

I can see three main subfields in the evolutionary human sciences that are open to developments of broader scope: gene-culture coevolution, biocultural history, and the evolutionary humanities.

Gene-culture coevolution has the broadest scope of all. It begins with the first tool use among hominids and continues into the present, with obvious watersheds in the emergence of culturally modern behaviors sometime between a hundred thousand and thirty thousand years ago, sedentism and the agricultural revolution, and the industrial revolution. Gene-culture coevolution holds the key to understanding modern human behavior in its relation to our ancestral past. Early evolutionary psychologists drew a sharp line at the advent of agriculture and announced that no adaptively significant human evolution had or could have taken place after that. That dogma was theoretically rationalized but also ideologically motivated. The theoretical rationalizations have already been decisively discredited in Cochran’s and Harpending’s 2009 book The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution and in Nicholas Wade’s 2014 book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. Ideology still presents strong barriers to pursuing this line of research. I can only hope that evolutionary human scientists will be more strongly motivated by the need for intellectually satisfying explanations than by anxiety about ideological taboos. Most evolutionary human scientists are decent people, humane and generous. They are, for the most part, candid, honest; they have intellectual integrity. I think there’s a good chance that those two sets of characteristics—moral and intellectual—will find a way through to dispassionately and responsibly evaluating the processes of gene-culture coevolution since the dispersal from Africa some 50,000 years ago.

Gene-culture coevolution forms the immediate explanatory context for biocultural history: research on the socioeconomic, political, institutional, religious, and ideological formations of specific historical cultures. Historical writing, like personality and social psychology, has developed independently of evolutionary thinking. If nothing else, historians always have a story to tell. But without an explanatory underpinning from gene-culture coevolution, historical explanation is trapped on a level of causal explanation in which historians can only shuffle around reciprocally interactive factors in a descriptive and inconclusive way. While thanking Evolution for Everyone for sending me to the work of Christopher Boehm, I can thank that book also for sending me to the work of Peter Turchin, whose 2007 book War and Peace and War offered a major pioneering effort at integrating evolutionary and historical levels of causal analysis. Since then, perhaps the most significant such effort was Francis Fukuyama’s two-volume world history, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (2012), and Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy (2015). Fukuyama has immense scope and analytic power, but his understanding of the evolution of human sociality stops short at old-fashioned sociobiological thinking. He limits evolved social dispositions to nepotism and reciprocation. The mathematical biologist Martin Nowak has extended that list of evolutionary social principles to include group selection and, most importantly, “network reciprocity,” the selective interaction of cooperators with other cooperators. That same basic idea of selective cooperation appears in Christopher Boehm’s term “social selection” and in Chudek and Henrich’s term “phenotypic assortment.”

So, we have a sweeping history of socioeconomic and political institutions, and we have new and more adequate explanatory concepts about human sociality, but no one has put them all together yet. That is an obvious main gap or opening for the development of a total paradigmatic understanding of human social behavior. The integration of these two areas—gene-culture coevolution and biocultural history—would form the appropriate context in which to merge social and personality psychology more coherently into evolutionary psychology.

Gene-culture coevolution and biocultural history form the necessary explanatory framework for the evolutionary humanities. The humanities occupy themselves with the world of imagination—with myths, religions, ideologies, and with stories, music, and the visual and plastic arts. Along with several other evolutionary theorists in literature and aesthetics, I think these products of the imagination have a major adaptive role to play in human behavior. They create an imaginative virtual world that in humans partially takes the place of animal instinct. The animal instincts—evolved dispositions for survival, mating, parenting, and social life—are still there, still feed and constrain culture and the arts, but human behavior is more complex and variable than the behavior of any other species. How people behave in any given culture depends crucially on the way shared cultural imagination enables them to envision their behavior and to regulate their behavior by appeal to variable social norms.

It is in works of imagination that people articulate the quality of their experience, make sense of it, and feel its significance and value. Even if we leave aside the causal significance of the argument for the adaptive function of imaginative works, the subjective function of imagination makes the subjects of the humanities intrinsically important. In his 2012 book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jon Gottschall makes a persuasive case that humans spend extraordinary amounts of time and effort engaged in imaginative play of one sort or another—from dreams and childhood fantasy to conspiracy theories, stories, movies, songs, and operas. Any form of human behavior that salient merits serious scientific study. It also merits the kind of appreciative and responsive work that goes into good interpretive criticism.

To sum up, gene-culture coevolution is now developing rapidly and robustly but faces the kind of uphill battle exemplified in the public reception of Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance. That subfield forms an explanatory context for biocultural history, which is in its infancy. Evolutionary studies in the humanities have produced more publications than biocultural history—a few dozen books and a few hundred articles and book chapters. But much evolutionary study in the humanities has been tentative, exploratory, or rudimentary. More robust development will depend heavily on expansions and refinements in the explanatory contexts surrounding it. It will depend also on much more active collaborative work between humanists and empirical researchers, integrating the knowledge and expertise of the humanities with the rigorous statistical and experimental methods of the social sciences.

There is much work to be done. Will it be done? People seem to have a powerful need to fill up explanatory space. So, yes, I have a reasonable confidence that the work will continue, productively.

DSW: Let me push back on Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance and what it represents. In my estimation, the reaction to it was not just an outpouring of political correctness. One of the most authoritative reviews of that book was published in TVOL. The reviewer was Joseph L. Graves, who was the first African American to get a PhD in evolutionary biology and has written widely on the concept of race. He’s fully comfortable with the idea of intraspecific genetic variation in our species and some of it being geographically based, but this is a far cry from socially constructed concepts of race and great care must be taken to distinguish the two. Ideally, there should be a detailed theory of race as a social construction to complement a detailed theory of human intraspecific genetic variation. Given the history of evolutionary thinking about race, the current generation of evolutionists can’t be expected to have it right, especially because they are extremely WEIRD (White, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic) as a group. Culturally homogenous groups can’t see their own biases very well. This is why the study of cultural evolution started off so badly—nobody, including Darwin, could see past the assumptions of the Victorian Age.

The solution, to the extent that one exists, is to increase the diversity of the people studying evolution.  On that note, I’d like to mention the new Cultural Evolution Society that the Evolution Institute is helping to create. Its founding members already represent over 50 nations and its bylaws are designed to promote diversity of all sorts in its elected officers. Political correctness can run amok, but science’s path to factual knowledge can also be highly circuitous!

JC: As I read Wade, he does a good job of analyzing the interactions between genetically grounded and socially constructed concepts of race. Of course, it would not be possible to reconcile a theory that race has a biological component with a theory that it consists exclusively of socially constructed categories devoid of biological significance.

I myself don’t believe that demographic and ethnic biases necessarily disenable clear and objective scientific thinking. I certainly don’t believe that pooling such biases offers a high road to impersonal knowledge. As I see it, science consists in an institutionalized set of procedures designed to counteract bias and to test all propositions for relative cogency, subordinating judgment to logic and to the weight of evidence. Individuals from different genders, ideologies, ethnicities, and even religions can all be scientific, but in becoming scientific, they must leave their genders, ideologies, ethnicities, and religions behind them. Science, as I understand it, is universalist, pan-human, and rational. The validity of a scientific hypothesis cannot rest on the demographic identity of the person proposing the hypothesis, nor can it be discredited by any such identity.

Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve, which appeared in 1994, was an enormous book with only one chapter on race, but that one chapter created a firestorm of controversy. Unfortunately, the hysteria over race obscured and all but buried the larger subject of the book as a whole, the subject registered in the subtitle: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Intelligence is always a hot-button issue, but if Herrnstein and Murray had not pressed the hottest of all buttons, in that one chapter on race, the discussion on intelligence and class, despite controversy, would almost certainly have been more civilized and quite possibly more productive. Not that I’m blaming Herrnstein and Murray. They were brave and honest. I mention their case only because I see a parallel between it and Wade’s case. Race is an important subject, but Wade has a larger subject that for evolutionary thinkers should be even more important: gene-culture coevolution. He is brave and honest, but the reception given his book indicates how much difficulty further research on gene-culture coevolution is likely to encounter.

It is not possible ultimately to formulate sound basic concepts about gene-culture coevolution, and to follow out their implications, without running eventually into the diversification of human populations. Most researchers interested in these subjects are sharp enough to see that, and many will no doubt continue to back away from this whole theoretical arena because they do not wish to encounter the kind of grief that inundated Herrnstein, Murray, and Wade.

Gene-culture coevolution is the single most important feature in all specifically human evolution, going back to the earliest hominids who fashioned rough edges to stones, to those later hominids who learned to control fire and cook food, to those still later who fashioned tailored clothing, complex multi-part tools, and paintings on cave walls, and not long ago, to those who learned to plant crops, breed domestic animals,  live in cities, and construct complex hierarchical societies with specialized social roles and interdependent networks of specialized skills. Without understanding gene-culture coevolution, we cannot understand human nature, and gene-culture coevolution leads researchers inevitably toward areas that will involve them, one way or another, in painful and emotionally violent areas of controversy.

It’s a fascinating situation for the understanding of ourselves as a species. We need one main line of thinking more than any other—gene-culture coevolution—and that one main line of thinking leads directly into the heart of a conflict that most researchers dread. I suppose if one were constructing an intellectual drama to maximize interest, one could hardly find a more promising scenario. Unfortunately, we aren’t all sitting comfortably in a theater, munching popcorn, and enjoying a harrowing spectacle. We are on the stage, in the midst of the danger, the acrimony, the fear, and the confusion. That’s where we are.

DSW: As you know, my father was Sloan Wilson, author of the blockbusters The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and A Summer Place. I often feel like a novelist trapped inside the body of a scientist, so studying the humanities from an evolutionary perspective is like going back home for me. Thanks for a great interview and I look forward to covering the humanities on TVOL with your help.

JC: Thanks, David. I’m glad to have this opportunity for reaching out to the whole consilient community, even to those who don’t yet quite recognize that there is any such community.

Read Joseph Carrol’s recent commentary on David Sloan Wilson’s Social Evolution Focus Article “The One Culture: Four new books indicate that the barrier between science and the humanities is at last breaking down“.

Published On: August 8, 2016

Joseph Carroll

Joseph Carroll

Joseph Carroll is Curators’ Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. His books include The Cultural Theory of Mathew Arnold, Wallace Stevens’ Supreme Fiction, Evolution and Literary Theory, Literary Darwinism, Reading Human Nature, and (co-authored) Graphing Jane Austen. He produced an edition of On the Origin of Species. His co-edited volumes include Evolution, Literature, and Film and Darwin’s Bridge. He edits the journal Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture.


David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is president of Prosocial World and SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, through Prosocial World and in his own research and writing.  A complete archive of his work is available at www.David SloanWilson.world. His most recent books include his first novel, Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III, and a memoir, A Life Informed by Evolution.


  • Bernd Ehlert says:

    How can the problem of social Darwinism and racism be solved not by “painful and emotionally violent clashes”, but by the unique spirit of man, his reason, and “hard science”?

    Carroll refers to older books by Edward O. Wilson when he interprets the gene-culture coevolution as follows:
    “Whatever the source and the precedence of terms, the core ideas are those of a spiraling causal process in which genes produce cultural changes and culture produces genetic changes, which lead to more cultural changes, which lead to more genetic changes, and so on.”
    This understanding explains how Carroll also makes it clear that there are “significant differences between individuals and groups”, namely, genetic differences that can not be eliminated by learning. This is nothing but the basis of racism. Are the peoples in the world, whom we call underdeveloped because they have not advanced such a powerful technique and industry, are not in a position to do so because they lack the necessary genetic basis? Is it, therefore, equally absurd and pure waste of time to teach them about (higher) mathematics, as is the case with a monkey, because it simply lacks the genetic basis? This would then correspondingly affect the lower classes of society. Is there really any difference between the peoples, groups and individuals, apart from the genetic variance contained in every nation?

    Carroll considers the representative of his views for “decent people, humane and generous”, “they are, for the most part, candid, honest;” “they have intellectual integrity” and they are producing “intellectually satisfying explanations”, while the opponents of these views are, in his opinion, ideologically motivated. Or is it the other way round? Where is the objective truth?
    The first contradiction with Carroll is that he is referring to Edward O. Wilson’s understanding of the gene-cultural coevolution. But exactly this Wilson, in one of his recent books, represents exactly the contrary understanding:
    „Why call the evolution of human societies into civilization cultural as opposed to genetic? There exist multiple lines of evidence to support this conclusion. Not least is the fact that infants of hunter-gatherer societies raised by adoptive families in technologically advanced societies mature as capable members of the latter—even though the ancestral lines of the child have been separated from those of its adoptive parents by as long as 45,000 years—in, for example, Australian aboriginal children raised by white families. That length of time has been enough to produce genetic differences between human populations through combinations of natural selection and genetic drift. But the known traits that were genetically changed are, as we have seen, primarily in resistance to disease and adaptation to local climates and food sources. No statistical genetic differences between entire populations have yet been discovered that affect the amygdala and other controlling circuit centers of emotional response. Nor is any genetic change known that prescribes average differences between populations in the deep cognitive processing of language and mathematical reasoning—although such may yet be detected.
    The stereotypes by which inhabitants of different nations, cities, and villages are often characterized might also have some hereditary basis in fact. However, the evidence suggests that the differences have a historical and cultural origin rather than a genetic one. As such, whatever hereditary variation among cultures that does exist is dwarfed when put in a genetic evolutionary time scale. Italians may be more voluble on average, Englishmen more reserved, Japanese more polite, and so on, but the average between populations of such personality traits are hugely outweighed by their variation within each population. It turns out, remarkably, that the variation is closely similar from one population to the next. Such was the observation of the American psychologist Richard W. Robins during his residence in a remote village of the West African nation of Burkina Faso.“ (Edward O. Wilson, “The Social Conquest of Earth”, chapter “The Sprint to Civilisation”).
    With that foundation of Wilson, he opens up what constitutes modern natural science, namely the empirical proof. Let us, therefore, expand Wilson’s example further, in order to determine the relationship between genetics and culture in humans, specifically and similarly as in the twin-studies.

    In contrast, a statement by Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution theory, from his book “Darwinism”, chapter “The Origin of the Mathematical Faculty”:
    “We have ample evidence that, in all the lower races of man, what may be termed the mathematical faculty is, either absent, or, if present, quite unexercised. The Bushmen and the Brazilian Wood-Indians are said not to count beyond two. Many Australian tribes only have words for one and two, which are combined to make three, four, five, or six, beyond which they do not count. The Damaras of South Africa only count to three; and Mr. Galton gives a curious description of how one of them was hopelessly puzzled when he had sold two sheep for two sticks of tobacco each, and received four sticks in payment. He could only find out that he was correctly paid by taking two sticks and then giving one sheep, then receiving two sticks more and giving the other sheep. Even the comparatively intellectual Zulus can only count up to ten by using the hands and fingers. The Ahts of North-West America count in nearly the same manner, and most of the tribes of South America are no further advanced.”
    Can human beings with an African gene kit, easily recognizable by their black skin color, actually count to only ten, without the chance to learn mathematics? This can easily be empirically verified and clarified. Of course, an adult should not be seen in the context of his culture, as Wallace has done in a naive manner, but according to the example of Wilson, people who are already growing up as little children in Western culture must be considered. In order to obtain unadulterated results, they must receive the same and the best education as the children of Western culture.Only then is the genetic influence recognizable.

  • Helga Vierich says:

    It is a fallacy to assume that the life of hunting and gathering on the African savanna during the Pleistocene is the “evolutionary environment of adaptation” for humans, resulting in “stone-aged” brains mismatched to other kinds of economy, let alone to life in “modern’ cultures.

    I have lived with hunter-gatherers, as well as with horticulturalists and pastoralists.. I find no evidence that humans in any of these societies have cognitive specialization to live in their particular economies.

    Humans are engaged in bio-cultural evolution, not limited but liberated by our past. We need not be foragers, or African, to be human; that much is obvious.

    What is not immediately obvious, and then glaringly so, is that all of us are as suited to foraging as we are to any OTHER economy, and to Africa as to any other continental ecosystem.

    What we are not suited for: injustice, bullying, solitary confinement, or enforced inactivity. (We are also not suited for exposure to constant high levels of malnutrition, fear, stress, or violence, but that is because we are animals, not because we are human.) 

Hunting and gathering are economic activities, which are learned aspects of human behaviour. Human behavioural evolution no more equipped us to survive best in “African savanna” than it hampered us in adapting to glaciated Eurasia, nor did it better equip us to get our food by “foraging” rather then by “gardening” or “shopping”.

    Sure, we humans evolved within foraging cultures; but that is not the primary fact about human evolution, or about culture, or even about foraging.

    Our human nature does not have to change to accommodate living in complex stratified societies.

It is CULTURE, not mobile foraging or any subsequent economy, that is the essential system to which the human mind and behavioural plasticity adapts. Adaptation to life as a cultural creature, over the course of several million years, has strengthened the “sapient” side of human nature. We, like many other animals, are capable of mental time travel, we have mental maps, and we can solve puzzles. We have ramped up that ability to analyze – to do what Daniel Kahneman calls “slow thinking” – the energy-expensive kind of cogitating – the “rational” mind. Enhancement of these cognitive abilities catapulted the human system of learned behaviour into a class by itself. Our human nature, transmuted by our long specialization for a predominantly cultural adaptation, is acutely primed for social engagement, for contact, for language and for paradignamic thinking.  So… sure we all are capable of selfishness as well as generosity, of meanness and spite as well as cooperation and compassion: but a sustainable and viable cultural ecology bends human nature towards empirical understanding of our material realities and social justice.  

    It is our cultures, not our innate “human nature” that sometimes fail to adapt viable interactions with our ecosystems. Hunting and gathering had a long time, as cultural ecologies go, to become anti-fragile. It is our more recent cultural experiments – those made possible by the onset of the Holocene, that collapse and fail, sometimes spectacularly. The human demes persist, local cultures reshape themselves, despite the rise and fall of kingdoms, empires, and entire civilizations.

    Our evolution is an on-going tango between a genetic replicator and a second replicator – genes and memes are however totally inadequate to understand it without reference to the contextual complexity of the ecosystems in which whole adaptive dance evolves.  

Let me be explicit. The human species evolved as a keystone species. For millions of years, as a cultural ecology of hunting and gathering developed, human cultures increased the management of their ecosystems for greater species diversity and stability, generating positive trophic flows.  This was how the first members of the genus Homo spread out from Africa to occupy much of Eurasia, and lately, anatomical modern Homo sapiens, as hunter-gatherers, spread not just to Eurasia, but to the farthest corners of the terrestrial world.  

    Let that sink in: humans, using a shared and learned system – a cultural-ecology of hunting and gathering, occupied every part of the planet. Moreover, they did it during an ice age. 

Every cultural ecology that has so far resisted disintegration since then, has maintained positive trophic flows. Slash and burn horticulture and nomadic pastoralism are sustainable options. I studied both kind of economy in West Africa: both systems generate positive trophic flows as long as their population remains low enough to use no more than about 20% of the ecosystem intensively at any one time (Changes in West African Savanna agriculture in response to growing population and continuing low rainfall). Evidence is fairly conclusive, however, that more intensive agricultural and livestock pasturing systems are not. (See also Examining how long fallow swidden systems impact upon livelihood and ecosystem services outcomes compared with alternative land-uses in the uplands of Southeast Asia | Center for International Forestry Research )

    Civilizations, in fact, appear to develop as cultural adaptations to over-population and shift to over-intensive lands and the resulting negative trophic flows. Unsustainable resource use translates into famines and higher risks, and such a society begins a predatory expansion, involving conquest of other cultures which still have a viable ecosystem. The productivity of these then get harnessed to the support of the conquerers, thus staving off the collapse for a while. Thus, the development of state societies coincides with outward waves of ecological deterioration, deforestation, and species extinction. The archaeological record indicate increased scale and intensity of warfare as predatory expansion (warfare and colonization of out outlying regions).  Organized religions appear to have begun emphasizing obedience and sacrifice – especially the obedience and even the mass sacrifice of human beings deployed in armies. 

    There is a fairly straightforward shift in child-rearing practices as these negative ecological consequences begin. 

    Among the hunter-gatherers, most children and younger teenagers played at learning adult skills like making tools, working on skins, and tending fires, but the bulk of their time was taken up with games of hide and seek, tag, clapping and singing, or pestering their babysitter for another story. Even in the middle of the Kalahari, the children flocked to look at my National Geographic pictures, to see through the microscope and the telescope. By popular demand, I had to open a small bush school, because a delegation of children came to me and wanted to learn to read and write. These were hunter-gatherer children, who freely chose to sit for hours practicing letters on 12 inch slates. I had to engage a school teacher to teach them in SeTswana, but their thirst for literacy, numeracy, – as well as history, music, other languages, geography, or biology – was astonishing.  

    All this time, in free play, I saw them learning critical interactive behaviour. Younger children – toddlers- were constantly cuddled and comforted, even after temper tantrums. Hitting, bullying, fighting, and other coercive or manipulative behaviour in children over four was met with mocking laughter as it indicated someone had been teased into loss of self-control. By the time they were ten, most of these children were like zen masters in terms of impulse control. Generosity and sharing of food was translated into helpfulness and cooperative turn-taking in all the games and other undertakings. Jokes and laughter permeated all activities. And guess what? All human children learn and thrive in such learning environments. A light-hearted teasing and “making fun” of aggressive or dishonest behaviour, is enough. 

You need not hit them to “teach them a lesson” unless the lesson is that violence is better than rational self-discipline and mutual respect.
Have we forgotten that, in a culture where there is no honour in kindness, death is often kinder than life?  Why do more democratic and equal societies have the happiest human beings?  Because they are permissive of fuller participation in the culture. This, in turn, wastes no possible contributions and innovations, promotes individuality of talents and inclinations, and in doing so, ramps up the amplitude of of adaptability of the local cultural system.  Playful cooperation, inclusivity, and curiosity engage the individual within a viable and replicable behavioural and cognitive niche: Serious competition, exclusivity, and disinterest essentially disengage the individual from full participation. Our human nature, transmuted by our long specialization for a predominantly cultural adaptation, is acutely primed for social engagement, for contact, for language and for paradignamic thinking.

    So, do we want to save all the marvellous gifts of knowledge and arts, accumulated in this energy-burning extravaganza since the enlightenment? Do we want to avoid a messy and ugly collapse, another “Dark Age”, or even, as some warn, a miserable slide into extinction?

    Yes? Well then we had better stop ignoring what the holistic study of human evolution and diversity has ALREADY revealed. I tried to summarize it here, but it a big story. At least it is a coherent story, including everything we know so far about our evolution as a bio/cultural creature within ecological framework.

    I don’t know about you, but I feel repelled by the stench of politically reinforced injustice that emerges in a severely unequal world. In such an economy, even the wealthy become caricatures, dehumanized, often rejecting empirical reality (look at poor Donald Trump!). Meanwhile the poor often would rather die, in the Mediterranean, or some refugee camp, or in some stupid fruitless crusade of further suicidal violence, than remain mired in a system that gives them – or their children – no future.  

    No matter what education system we impose on our children, shouldn’t we respect the essential realities of human nature – the realities that permeate successful and viable cultures? Shouldn’t it teach them that they have the right, and the courage, to confront bigotry, ignorance, selfishness, coercive aggression, meanness, bullying, injustice, and hubris, wherever they find it – both within themselves and when they see it in others? This is the acute danger of social Darwinism, the misunderstands evolution as a “survival of the fittest” process that justifies racist and economically elites models — exactly the creepy sort of idea promulgated by those who insist on the cognitive inferiority of people who until recently have been hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers in tribal societies, rather than face the fact that there is no sign of cognitive superiority, among those of us who, as members of an industrial and agricultural globalized economy, while this “civilization”, like all those before it, is systematically dismembering viable ecosystems along with the societies that manage them, and leading us toward a collapse o scale never before seen? We are changing the climate and have already set of the sixth mass extinciton of life on this planet! And who is bravely and honestly – and nonviolently – standing in the way of this process – who is resisting the pollution of the last fresh water, the destruciton of the last major forests, standign gfurard over the last habitats of gorillas and organgutans? Tribal and band level societies – the descendants of disenfranchized hunter-gatherers and horticultual and pastoral peoples! 

And meanwhile the acedmeics of this “civilization” write volumes on how much smarter and more cooperative and peaqceful peoiple are after the civilizational process has rearranged their genes? Please. 

I’m sorry, but even the apparently popular idea that humans have domesticated themselves ignores copious evidence from genetic studies of actually domesticated species; evidence that has zeroed in on pleiotropic regulatory genes involved in the reduction of the flight-fight response and imprinting period length. There is no evidence of any variation this kind “domestication” in humans enlisted in different economic systems. Indeed, despite the longed for evidence that somehow there is a “civilizational” process that produces a more cooperative and intelligent cognitive system, one that permitted humans to “conquer” the earth, no such evidence stands up to scrutiny. Humans “conquered” every ecosystem on the planet while engaged in a foraging economy, thousands of years before the beginning of any civilization? 

Is Peter Turchin aware that humans did not require thousands of years of warfare to become a highly cooperative species? What “brave and honest” Nicolas Wade – and Harpending and Cochran as well as Herrnstein and Murray promulgated was the same old thoroughly discredited “civilized humans are superior” story that has plagued us since Plato. All intensive agricultural state societies have created negative trophic flows (measurable in species extinction and deforestation, as well as lowered water tables and desertification) and have rationalized their predatory usurpation of tribal lands by denigrating the humanity of the inhabitants. Lawrence Keeley and his popularizer Steven Pinker are but the latest instalments of this endless saga of triumph of civilization over the violence and intellectual inferiority of “savage barbarians”.

    I had hoped that modern archaeology, anthropology, psychology, biology, indeed, even the humanities, would have got beyond this ancient self-congratulatory fallacy. How disappointing to see it still hanging on – now with the attachment of the dignifying “Darwinian” and “evolutionary” adjectives to make it seem like scientific enlightenment. As you can probably tell, I am pretty horrified to see here praise for works that embody scientific racism. I have been following this site for some time, frankly puzzled by the evident desire of so many people to detach “cultural evolution” from it’s real point of origin in the work of so many mid-twentieth century anthropologists who were already bringing human biological and cultural evolution together. I am frankly aghast at the hubris of people who claim that this is a new discipline founded by E.O.Wilson. All this appears to me now to be a last ditch effort to rescue the mythical superiority of the civilized human. Studies of the supposedly inferior people in cultures of tribal societies with subsistence economies of slash and burn horticulture (like the Yanomami) and pastoralism (like the Ariaal and Nuer) or hunting and gathering (like the Inuit, Athabaskan, Hadza or Australian Aborigines) have shown instead a complexity of culture and language comparable to anything found in state societies. 

The imaginary superiority of humans resident in Eurasian civilizations was dealt a further blow by the discovery that genetic diversity outside of Africa was but a tiny subset of that in Africa, and the added detail that all humans shared common African ancestry only 100,000 years ago. So the search for evidence of “rapid evolutionary change” took on sudden urgency: if civilized humans were to remain the acknowledged cutting edge of human evolutionary progress, it must at all costs be shown that the “civilizational” process was producing biologically superior humans Hence the rush to affirm that the “fierce” Yanomami were indeed typical of humans in their “original” savage condition (I bet you never caught that part, did you Napoleon?) and the almost desperate effort to make cattle rustling appear to be war, despite the fact that it was neither an obvious “reproductive strategy” nor evidence of the inherently more violent nature of tribal people (I tried to warn you Richard Wrangham). 

No wonder the lack of evidence for warfare among contemporary hunter-gatherers was met with derision – these cultural anthropologists “romanticized” their subjects and even falsified their data in support of a romantic myth of a noble savage uncorrupted by civilization! Savages had to be.. well, savage! Not quite as noble as the civilized human! Various people set to show that this was an evolutionary process – the violence and impulsive savagery genetically refined by the selective pressures of living in organized societies that refined and enabled human nature by making even warfare an incubator for cooperative instincts. In this regard, of course, Peter Turchin is mistaken and (unconsciously, one hopes) racist. Humans were highly cooperative before “civilized” warfare, and they were also “brave and honest”. Human nature – especially cognitive abilities evolve not by some kind of see-saw where every change in economy and social organization sets in motion a shift in biological selection pressures for specific aspects of behaviour and intelligence,

    It is only in maximizing our understanding of the position human beings play within whole ecosystems that we can avoid the worst collapse EVER. We will need all the creativity and cooperation within our scope to transform our current cultures from participators in a global industrial predatory and extractive economy to something with a future. The only option now is one that can restore positive trophic flows, mitigate the soil erosion and climate change, and put avoid further warfare, genocide, and predatory expansion.

    As long as we delude ourselves that such things are just our “nature”; that we have “always” been destructive of ecosystems, (so what’s one more dam or copper mine) that we have always been selfish and competitive, (so poverty can never be eliminated and the rich will inherit the earth anyway) the longer we persist in a self-destructive fantasy.

    We, as a species, might do worse than find some common ground in these essentials.

    • Helga Vierich says:

      Sorry my references did not attach to my earlier comment. Here they are:
      “Changes in West African Savanna agriculture in response to growing population and continuing low rainfall”
      H.I.D. Vierich ∗∗, W.A. Stoop ∗∗∗
      Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment
      Volume 31, Issue 2, June 1990, Pages 115-132

      “Examining how long fallow swidden systems impact upon livelihood and ecosystem services outcomes compared with alternative land-uses in the uplands of Southeast Asia”
      Authors: Dressler, W.; Wilson, D.; Clendenning, J.; Cramb, R.; Mahanty, S.; Lasco, R.D.; Keenan, R. J.; Phuc, X.T.; Gevana, D.T.
      Center for International Forestry Research

      Abstract: Examining how long fallow swidden systems impact upon livelihood and ecosystem services outcomes compared with alternative land-uses in the uplands of Southeast Asia
      Examining how long fallow swidden systems impact upon livelihood and ecosystem services outcomes compared with alternative land-uses in the uplands of Southeast Asia
      Examining how long fallow swidden systems impact upon livelihood and ecosystem services outcomes compared with alternative land-uses in the uplands of Southeast Asia
      Swidden agriculture or shifting cultivation has been practised in the uplands of Southeast Asia for centuries and is estimated to support up to 500 million people – most of whom are poor, natural resource reliant uplanders. Recently, however, dramatic land-use transformations have generated social, economic and ecological impacts that have affected the extent, practice and outcomes of swidden in the region. While certain socio-ecological trends are clear, how these broader land-use changes impact upon local livelihoods and ecosystem services remains uncertain. This systematic review protocol therefore proposes a methodological approach to analysing the evidence on the range of possible outcomes such land-use changes have on swidden and associated livelihood and ecosystem services over time and space.

      Geographic: Southeast Asia
      Publication Year: 2015
      ISSN: 1943-9342

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